May 17, 2017
A debate over whether the city should name a Mattapan early learning center for Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) has been bubbling for the last few weeks. There have been strong arguments both for and against re-naming what is now known as the Mattahunt Elementary School on Hebron Street, which will close and then re-open in the fall to serve grades K-0 to 1.
The pro-Louverture argument is propelled by an urge among mainly Haitian-American activists to acknowledge the historical importance of their often-overlooked hero while at the same time saluting the large Haitian population that has grown up around the school’s neighboring communities, including Hyde Park, Roslindale and Mattapan. The new Early Ed center — when it opens— will be home to Boston’s first and only dual-language Haitian preschool program for students in K1.
Others would prefer to see the Mattahunt name remain in place, citing concerns about a perceived slight toward descendants or the actual historic Native American tribe from which the present school’s name is derived. There may also be some concern about staking out a claim for one emerging immigrant group’s homegrown hero at the expense of others in the city.
Toussaint Louverture deserves a fair hearing, one that sets aside for a moment his specific Haitian identity and puts him in the context of what his leadership — and the success of his fellow Haitian revolutionaries – meant for their region and, in particular, the United States. Some equate Louverture to George Washington, and in the sense that he was a founding father of the first free black republic and a pivotal commanding officer on the field of battle, this was the case. But Louverture was born a slave in a cruel, oppressive colonial system, bereft of the many advantages of the men — many of them slave-owners—who would create our own republic in the United States.
The reverberations of Haiti’s revolution and subsequent independence in 1804 — two years after Louverture’s capture and death at the hands of the French— were profound for our own nation. Napoleon, in his frustration in his armies’ inability to crush the Haitian uprising, sold off French holdings in North America as part of the largest single land acquisition in US history. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of US territory and the resulting expansion led directly to our nation’s substantial growth and success.
Not that Haiti’s contribution to its mighty northern neighbor’s good fortune was appreciated in real time or even today. In fact, the US government sided with Napoleon, imposed sanctions against the emerging state, and systematically undermined Haiti at every turn, at times with an eye toward outright annexation.
Naming parks, bridges, tunnels, libraries and — yes— schools for historic figures is one way in which we celebrate that influence and history. Not all have lived in our community. As I write this editorial, I can look out over the bustling Kosciuszko Circle, named for the hero of another revolution, this one even further afield from our shores, that liberated the people of Poland. In as much as the naming of this vital rotary was meant to salute the long-dead general, it clearly has the ongoing impact of heralding the great contributions of Polish-Americans in this part of the city. There is no cause for shame in that.
The choice of Toussaint Louverture is an inspired choice for the Early Education Center in Mattapan. We hope that the Boston School Committee will see fit to support it.
– Bill Forry